Wednesday 24 June 2020

Movie Review: The Cooler (2003)

A slick drama and romance, The Cooler explores luck and happiness through the fortunes of interdependent characters in a pathetically glitzy environment.

In Las Vegas, Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is employed as a "cooler" at the Shangri La casino operated by his lifelong friend Shelly (Alec Baldwin). A recovered gambling addict, Bernie only ever experiences bad luck and spreads it to anyone near him. He is deployed near hot streak gamblers to turn the tide back in the casino's favour.

Having worked for years to pay a debt he owed Shelly, Bernie is now ready to quit and leave town. Meanwhile owner representative Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston) considers Shelly's old-fashioned management style incompatible with the new family-friendly Vegas. Bernie embarks on an unlikely passionate relationship with cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). But his personal happiness impacts his luck and he becomes useless as a cooler, multiplying Shelly's problems.

Filled with fluid camera work, a nighttime aesthetic and playful symbolism, and drenched in garrish Vegas neon and sickly casino lights, The Cooler explores the ecosystem under the rocks where desperate characters live. And in the script co-written by director Wayne Kramer and Frank Hannah, all the characters are desperately on edge, staring at forthcoming foundational changes and unsure they like what they see.

Bernie functions as a doormat for Shelly and is drowning so deep in a life of misfortune he is actually grateful Shelly busted his knee with a baseball bat to cure his gambling addiction. Natalie is living with her own ghosts of regret and shattered dreams. And Shelly is watching the city pass him by and evolving into a family playground, his hardcore boiler room intimidation tactics and crooner entertainment shows no longer appealing to owners and audiences.

A sharp shaft of light breaks into this grime in the form of an unlikely love between Bernie and Natalie, and suddenly the long-established status quo is disrupted. Neither Bernie nor Natalie could imagine finding a meaningful relationship and don't quite know what to do with it; Bernie's happiness translates to good luck and his value as a cooler plummets; the losses mount for Shelly just as he is trying to fend off Larry's modernization. The Cooler embraces the unhinging of three lives and tracks the ensuing out-of-control trajectories to fitting conclusions.

Other sub-plots enrich the film, although the relatively short 101 minutes of running time limit their depth. Bernie's good-for-nothing son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) and a pregnant girlfriend Charlotte (Estella Warren) show up looking for handouts and layering additional guilt onto Bernie. Shelly, in his own unique way, is loyal to drug addicted entertainer (Paul Sorvino) long past his sell-by date.

Although the 17 year age difference is grating, William H. Macy and Maria Bello glow at the heart of the film, both creating characters living on dying embers of hope. Alec Baldwin enjoys himself as Shelly, hiding his uncompromising tendencies and dead soul behind expensive suits.

Stylish, engaging, and unpredictable, The Cooler rolls a natural.

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